A Journey To London @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

cast list
Robert Benfield
Mairead Carty
John Paul Connolly
Nick Earnshaw
Claudia Elmhirst
Peter Forbes
Paul Goodwin
John Hodgkinson
Fiona Mollison
Sophie Trott
Joanna Van Gyseghem
Thomas Wheatley

directed by
Sam Walters
1726 was the year that John Vanbrugh, a noted dramatist and architect died. Among his papers was found an unfinished manuscript entitled A Journey to London. In 1986 playwright James Saunders, under the suggestion of the Orange Tree’s Sam Walters, completed Vanbrugh’s play for the theatre and nearly twenty years later it is being revived.

Vanbrugh, most famous for The Provoked Wife and The Relapse, had fallen out of favour with the popular audiences of 18th century London and in his later life turned away from the stage. The work he left unfinished was the story of a country MP, his family and servants who move to London where they become easy targets for the various vices of the big city. Londoners, according to the plot, have a tendency to be either corrupting or corrupted.

This is a rip-roaring comedy, which runs at a very fast pace – and such is the nature of the space (intimate, in-the-round) that the characters make their entrances often before the others have left, giving the impression of a succession of near misses.

Sometimes the silence in the auditorium would seem to suggest the audience’s indifference, however the inticacy of the play is such it takes concentration to catch all the wonderful words. The language is magnificent and the play is all the more impressive given how impossible it is to tell where Vanbrugh starts and Saunders takes over.

A Journey to London has quite a large cast for such a small space and they are uniformly excellent. Honourable mention must go to John Hodgkinson who manages a remarkable feat in his portrayal of a thoroughly bad, morally corrupt and corrupting man, Colonel Courtly, whose love of the chase is evident, and yet he still manages to make him appealing with sly grins at the audience and a complete honesty regarding his wickedness.

Furthermore, Sophie Trott is very good as the MP’s daughter Betty Headpiece who while completely disgusted by all those around her in London, is seduced herself – she manages to leave you with the impression that despite all her worldliness she narrowly escapes losing her heart.

The play without doubt has much to say about human nature in both the 18th and 20th century – at one point Betty Headpiece comments that everyone in London runs around endlessly involved in the various vices the capital has to offer and no one seems to be enjoying themselves – the same of course could be said of London today. It also has much to say about the restricted role women were afforded in the society of the time.

The success of this play lies in the fact that you are never sure where the original starts and the new work begins, the dialogue is razor sharp and delivered with considerable aplomb by a very accomplished cast and the resulting production provides an ideal treat for all those looking for an intelligent antidote to pantomime season.

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